After a lifetime on horseback, Brad Langenberg, 56, had injured his body so many times he’d lost count. Pilates is now giving him a shot at a pain-free life.
I G REW UP ON A FARM OUT SIDE A TINY NEBRASKA TOWN: POPULATION 190.
My gradeschool class had eight kids, and my nearest friend, Mike, lived about a mile away. After I’d done my chores, I’d jump on my horse, Ike, and ride bareback over to his house. Our horses were like other kids’ bikes, and the only rule was that we had to be back by sunset. In the summer, we were on those horses all day long, going anywhere we liked. I loved the freedom. I had two siblings die from congenital illnesses while I was growing up, leaving me an only child; riding sweet, gentle Ike was my coping mechanism and escape.
Brad Langenberg Rescued From Pain With Pilates Photo Gallery
Things changed a lot when I went to high school. It was pretty far away, and I had social anxiety being around so many people and worrying that they’d call me a cowboy and a hick, so I left horses behind for a while. Since then, I could have been diagnosed with ADD, ADHD and just about a billion different labels, so it’s no wonder I didn’t enjoy school. To fit in, I joined the football and wrestling teams— wrestling is a big deal where I come from. I’m 6’1” but a pretty small-boned guy. So in order to get bigger for sports, I started weight lifting obsessively. I had dreams of playing college football. But I also started drinking and doing drugs in high school.
THE DARK YEARS
After graduating, my life became more of a tangle. I tried college, but I dropped out after not making the football team. After that, I was even more determined to get bigger and make the team. So when I was 19 or 20, I started doing steroids. To be honest, by this time I was a drug addict and an alcoholic. My early twenties were spent working out, abusing steroids, making a couple more attempts at college and football, and dealing and using drugs. I was lifting way beyond my league, which was damaging my body—I weighed 240 pounds and squatted 600 pounds! I was so unhealthy and out of control. Deep down, I knew I wouldn’t make it if I continued with that lifestyle.
Then one night when I was 27—on March 7, 1987 to be exact—I was driving on a quiet road with a bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand, and a bag of cocaine in the other. Out of the blue, I started crying hard, and I heard myself say “please stop” over and over again. Two days later, I left Nebraska for California to seek a new, sober life.
RECONNECTING WITH HORSES
It took a while to find my way with my recovery; meanwhile, I supported myself being a fitness trainer. The new setting, away from past temptations and routines, helped me get sober. But Los Angeles offered a whole new set of vices, but some sort of higher power helped me, and despite all the anxiety I had from being sober, I knew I had to remain that way. Then around 1990, after a couple of years of sobriety, I met a horsewoman named Mary who encouraged me to pursue my love of horses. I bought a horse I could afford, but he needed a lot of work. I would have to over-engage my core to keep on him because he loved to buck. Riding a “bad” horse can really damage your body, but I was so in love with this horse. He had some mental challenges, so we fit! Before too long, I was training horses for other people and happy to be back in my comfort zone. As I got more and more into the horse world, I heard about equine-assisted therapy. It really married my two passions—horses and addiction recovery—and allowed me to use what I knew to help others get sober. So in 1995, I earned a Certificate of Completion in Equine Therapy. From then on, I made my living through a combination of horse training, horse therapy, interventions, teaching and working with film and TV actors (including Dennis Quaid), to prepare them for riding roles.
THE HORSE WHISPERER
But as anyone who spends their life around horses can tell you, it’s just a matter of time before you get hurt. They’re big, and they startle easily. I had a horse I was training fall on me mid-jump, severely spraining the ACL in my knee. I still can’t straighten that leg. I’ve been kicked and stepped on, and bashed against fence posts. I’ve received dozens of stitches. I’ve been banged up so often I’ve lost count, but one injury in particular stands out. About 10 years ago, some neighbors asked me to check out their horse. He was rearing all the time, and no one could ride him. I jumped on, confident, and almost immediately the horse reared straight up, then flipped over on top of me—a thousand pounds landing on my left leg. I’ve had a lot of pain in my life, but I’d never felt anything like that. It’s incredible that I survived. I know this will sound crazy, but I didn’t even go to the hospital. I got an ultrasound to see if I’d broken anything, and then popped a handful of Tylenol and Advil, and was back on a horse the next day. Still, after that, I was always hurting. When I was in the saddle, the pain that would run down from my psoas muscles—the deep muscles that connect the top and bottom halves of your body—to my quads was awful. For more than a year, my shin area was numb from my knee to my ankle. But because I was an addict, I couldn’t take anything more than some over-thecounter anti-inflammatories for it. I found some relief in yoga, and I even took some Pilates classes— this was L.A. after all—and they definitely helped. But nothing gave me lasting relief.
A LIFE-CHANGING MEETING
Then In 2012, I met a businessman named Joe Jingoli. He ran a family construction firm in New Jersey, was involved in the recovery field and owned several horses. Soon I was training the horses he boarded on the West Coast. He had also created a mentoring and employment program for at-risk youths on his horse farm in Lambertville, NJ, called the F.A.R.M. Team (Facilitating Active Recovery Mission). Since that was my field as well, and I had worked with some tough kids, he invited me to check out the program this past year. I was really impressed, and I was again reminded how therapeutic it can be for people to be around animals and nature. Now I fly out every month for 10 days or so to teach horsehandling to the F.A.R.M. Team participants, and to help train the horses on the farm.
STILL STRUGGLING WITH PAIN
As it turned out, Joe went to a Pilates class nearly every day at the Lambertville studio of Zane Rankin, a Romana Kryzanowska–trained instructor. I’d been struggling with near-constant pain, which is incredibly wearing, even with my high tolerance. So when Joe said that Zane had helped him enormously with his back issues, I was eager to give it a shot. At that point, when I stood, my butt would stick out and I looked swayback—I had what’s called an anterior pelvic tilt. Plus I had bad knees and a pulled tendon on the bottom of my foot, which had been an ongoing nightmare. From my years of weight lifting, I had shortened and bulked up the muscles in my back and couldn’t fully straighten my legs. All in all, my body was a mess.
On my first visit to Zane’s studio, The Pilates Corner, I realized this guy really understood how the body was put together. He has been doing Pilates for 40 years, had been a professional dancer and loved horseback riding. He understood my physical problems in a way that was new to me. Almost immediately, he mentioned that I was leaning about two inches to the right. This was news to me! He also saw how much tension I held in my hips and back. You should be relaxed in the hips when you ride, but I rode tight in my hips—I think it was due to years of riding horses that might bolt at any moment. Zane would have me face the mirror and work on tightening my glutes, which would help improve my balance. Something as simple as that was initially a challenge for me.
Because of my pronounced pelvic tilt, a lot of our work together was about helping me to start standing straighter, and with less pain. Zane really emphasized elongating my muscles. He told me that when I was stretching, the energy should extend beyond the end of my extremities, and that I should be reaching further than I think I can. One of my favorite things to use is the Step Barrel because it brings me such relief. When I first started on it, it was impossible to put my foot flat on the lip of the barrel, much less on the floor. Straightening my legs, even now, is very hard, and I was unsure that I could even bend enough to get over the barrel. But I trusted Zane. It took a while, but I found that I loved lying over the Step Barrel because it stretches my hip flexors, psoas and counteracts my tightness. I can’t imagine a better stretch for my problem body.
The Bridge and the Swan were also great not only for stretching my psoas and hip flexors, but for strengthening my back while making it more flexible. Cowboys don’t tend to be flexible! Another favorite is doing Bicycle with side leg springs on the Cadillac. I was used to pulling in my muscles with weight lifting, and it’s remarkable how elongation feels so much better now.
I take a class with Zane every day that I’m in NJ; afterward, I’m pretty much standing straight up. That’s a phenomenal change for me. Zane has also taught me to realign myself in real time, throughout the day. So now I’m working on remembering that I can stand up straight! I think my body is so used to being bent over that it tends to go back to that position if I don’t pay attention. In the saddle, I’ll also take note if I’m too tense in my hips, or if my shoulders are up around my ears. All of this makes me eager to get in the studio with Zane, because it’s pretty remarkable for me to feel good in my body.
PILATES AS MOVING MEDITATION
While all the movements help me enormously, what also helps is the mindful aspect of Pilates. I really have to pay attention to all the little details of a move: When do I breathe? When do I push versus pull? Am I doing it fast enough? Am I engaging my core properly? I never look at the clock because I’m totally into it. It gives me a break from my brain racing and helps me feel more at peace with my body. The only other place I’ve felt that is when I’m out in nature, on a horse.
NEVER TOO LATE TO GET BETTER
The universe has been very good to me. My life has worked out not because of me, but in spite of me. What Pilates has given me is a very big deal—I’m not in pain all the time! In fact, a couple of months ago I was in a parade, on horseback, for four hours with just one quick break. In the past, I would have gotten off the horse and hobbled away aching. This time, I had no pain when I got off that horse. You have no idea how amazing that is. Not being in pain allows me to just “be” with the horse, and in the beauty of nature while I’m riding. That never could have happened without Zane and Pilates. So my new motto is “Taking Care of What’s Left!”
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